Nurse Earns Time Despite Late Start to Football Career

DL Clay Nurse
DL Clay Nurse

Sept. 18, 2009

by Molly Sheehan, Illinois Sports Information

Many Division I football players grew up sweating through summer training camps and dreaming about becoming professional athletes after college. But that wasn't the case for Fighting Illini junior Clay Nurse. Believe it or not, Nurse has only been playing the game for six years. Although his football career started at the age of 15, coaches and teammates are now looking at Nurse as one of the key factors on the Illini defensive line this season.

Clay Nurse in elementary school.

Growing up in Guyana, a small country on the northern coast of South America, Nurse lived a much different lifestyle than he does now. "People are a lot more laid back in the West Indies," he said. "You hang out with everyone and there are no cliques. When I came here, I immediately realized that it was more strict and structured here."

Football wasn't even an option in Guyana. The 260-pound lineman hadn't even heard of the sport until he came to the States. Nurse learned self-discipline while playing cricket throughout his childhood in Guyana. It was through that sport that he developed the agility and quickness that he says has been one of the main factors in his successes in football.

"With cricket, you have to be very, very fast and in shape," Nurse said. "The athleticism I built over the years with cricket has definitely carried over into my football career."

At the age of 15, Clay's mother told him that they were moving to America where there were more opportunities. With that, they picked up and moved from Georgetown, Guyana to Maryland. His football career had begun before he even knew it.

"From the first day I played, I loved it," Nurse said. "Everything about the sport intrigued me, and it was a great activity to keep me busy after school."

That after-school activity has now earned Nurse a full scholarship as a Division I athlete. Coaches and teammates nicknamed him "Student of the Game." It is a well-deserved title, as he spends his time trying to learn as much as he can every day.

"I am always watching ESPN and trying to learn more," Nurse said. "One technique could work with one player and a different technique could be the key for another. You never know what can give you that extra edge in the game, so I just try to learn as much as I possibly can."

After playing the sport for a mere six years, fans and teammates are surprised at the level of excellence Nurse has been able to demonstrate as an Illini. New defensive line coach Keith Gilmore has plenty of good things to say about Nurse.

Clay Nurse vs. Indiana

"At first I just thought he was like most kids, eager to learn and eager to be a part of the program. But as I got to know him a little bit better, I realized he had an extra heartbeat and he has a desire to be a great player."

Nurse fulfills that desire each day, on and off the field. Learning from teammates and trying to experience all he can at the University of Illinois, he is truly living out the lifestyle of a Division I athlete. Nurse is studying kinesiology and plans to one day become a physical therapist.

"I'm just living the dream," he said. "I can honestly say that I learn something new every single day that I am at college. I'm trying to take full advantage of that."

After taking a medical redshirt his freshman year due to a shoulder injury, the junior defensive lineman has been gaining strength and knowledge about the game and in doing so, has been receiving more playing time.

"I'm very pleased with his progress, effort and attitude about the game," Gilmore said. "He is going to be a huge factor to our successes this year and as he brings a great pass rush to us, he will be a force to be reckoned with."

Humbled by his successes in both college and football, Clay considers everything he does, however small, to be an accomplishment. He understands the value of hard work and takes nothing for granted.

"Getting to where I am now is a great accomplishment for me," Nurse said. "I have come a long way and have been through a lot. Every single day I am just living the dream."

But don't let that fool you. He has set very high goals for himself and the team, which he is determined to reach.

"I want to find my niche this year so I can help the team in whatever way they need," Nurse said. "We want a Big Ten ring so badly and this could be the year. So whatever I have to do for the team, I will do it."